Something strange has been going on in the UK’s electoral politics. In what is predicted to be the closest (i.e. the most unpredictable) election in years, we’ve had a set of campaigns which have often seemed uninspiring at best. The tedium of two major parties deadlocked in the polls, and appealing to voters by appearing as like their opposition as they can be – rather than standing up for their own vision – has been enough to discourage even a ‘political obsessive’ like myself. Even more discouraging, the term ‘political obsessive’ sometimes elides closely with ‘has read a newspaper in the last fortnight’ – the closeness of the projected result has not yet produced a picture of mass engagement or a shift towards a decisive result ….
Back in the early 2000s Obama offered his voters the ‘audacity of hope’ and ended up becoming President against the odds. He had a coherent vision of the future – even if reality fell short. In Britain in 2015 the audacity of our politicians is to simply offer ‘Nope’ in answer to key questions on which we could make an informed choice. Will the Conservatives tell us how they will distribute £12 billion of welfare cuts to people of working age – many of whom struggle in low-paid jobs? ‘Nope’. Will the Labour party say exactly how much it will borrow to stimulate investment? ‘Nope’. It is as if these details don’t matter – but how we make a fully informed choice without them? The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has asserted that the public is effectively ‘in the dark’ when it comes to where cuts will fall in reality.
Why is this the case? Well, that old mantra ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ has swallowed the political space, as Britain struggles to muster a decent recovery from years of austerity following the financial crash. The fine detail of how each party’s economic plan will work in practice has not been revealed.
The Tories justify their position by saying their ‘track record’ shows that they can grow the economy and make cuts – but the low-hanging fruit has been picked now and it’s things like child benefit and housing benefit – vital to low-income families – which are left. It really does matter where these cuts fall. As it does for cuts to unprotected government departments, many of which have been heavily cut already, and which deal with such trifles as higher education and justice to name but two.
Meanwhile, Labour argues that borrowing for investment will pay for itself through growth – no precise figures attached. And the ‘mansion tax’ will pay for some of Labour’s proposals, but how the housing stock in question will be valued (at what cost) remains unclear – in a country where the property banding values underlying council tax have not been reviewed for decades.
And the politicians and media spend inordinate time on discussing the ‘perils’ of electoral arithmetic represented by various possible multi-party options for minority governments or (whisper it) a future coalition. While the polls show that neither main party is likely to get a majority, neither of them can admit this until it happens. So we are stuck in a place where democracy has become a stick with which to beat the electorate – ‘don’t vote for an illegitimate government’ – that is a government which represents the pattern of your votes across parties in our particular political system…
And I cannot remember another election in which so many important issues have been overlooked – has there been any meaningful discussion of relations with Europe? ‘Nope’; of low productivity, ‘Nope’; of household debt ‘Nope’; of where to build affordable housing ‘Nope’; of how technology is impacting on the labour market and wider society? ‘Nope’; of social care? ‘Nope’; of climate change? ‘Nope’… the list goes on, in what seems to become a ‘Vote now, think later’ strategy based on a narrowing of view rather than a far horizon. Perhaps the real audacity of this strategy is that our leaders calculate they can get away with it, because they reckon many aren’t listening any more. So back to social media for a diet of photoshopped political superheroes and pictures of cats urging us to vote – well, it’s a vision of something …. I will cast my vote to symbolise the hope for something more.